A year ago this week, things were looking up for rising Notre Dame junior safety Austin Collinsworth.
A few months removed from a season in which he earned Special Teams Player of the Year honors for Brian Kelly's Irish, Collinsworth had forged ahead of his younger competitors for an all-important No. 3 safety role. With it came the promise of rotation playing time alongside starters Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, and a spot as the team's nickel defender.
First-year safeties coach Bob Elliott dubbed him, "Nine for nine" in an interview with Irish Eyes. In other words, with nine practices down, Collinsworth had impressed the three-decade veteran defensive coach nine times.
"I think he’s been as impressive to me as any of the guys back there," Elliott said last April. "I expected good things, but he’s met or exceeded expectations in every way. He’s been so consistent all spring. Today is practice No. 9, he’s nine for nine. Hasn’t had a bad day."
Then Collinsworth played vs. his teammates in the annual Blue Gold Game and his 2012 season ended.
Set back after the setback
Six months removed from shoulder surgery to repair the torn labrum that ended his junior season, Collinsworth much-anticipated return to the field hit a snag. Another surgery, this time a discectomy to repair a herniated disc.
"Its hard," he said following the team's sixth practice this spring. "You just start to turn the corner on one injury and then another hits. You have to stay tough, come out the other side better than you came in."
Time away from your suddenly successful teammates is tough. Losing ground to young talent is as well. Of course, so is Collinsworth.
"We've always been a huge fan of Austin," said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco at spring's outset. "He's a rugged, tough guy. He's a high run-and-hit factor guy. We just want him to continue to heal up and get more physically capable to compete."
He's close to that level now, dubbing himself "98 percent."
"I feel a lot better back there than I thought I would. Its been a good spring so far," Collinsworth noted. "Mentally, the game is almost in slow motion compared to how it was last year. I've been watching a lot of film -- I had a lot of time to myself last year -- so mentally I'm a lot better."
He'll need to be with young charges such as the sophomore pair of Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti and junior Eilar Hardy forcing their way into spring's competition. Incoming four-star freshman Max Redfield figures to force the staff's hand a bit in August as well.
Never at a loss for confidence, the former special teams demon believes he's ready to make his mark from scrimmage as well.
"Its a heated competition back there," he said. "But as long as I'm 100 percent I think I should be well-prepared to play."
Starter, backup, or heavy member of the team's defensive rotation, Collinsworth's 2013 future contributions are set-in-stone in one aspect of the game: kick coverage.
"I love being on special teams, man," said Collinsworth when reminded his head coach planned to use starters through the specialty units next fall. " I'm always willing to do it."
Ready, willing, and after a year away, finally able.